Camden’s Broad Street is a sleepy place on an early Saturday morning, save for a remarkably small shop tucked between a gift store and an antiques place.
The blue and red “OPEN” light is flashing in its circular pattern at Pete’s Shoe Shop.
“When that light goes on, I’m here,” said Robert “Pete” France. “I get here at 7:30 in the morning, five and half days a week.”
France leaned over a counter inside the shoebox-shaped shop full to the brim with the business of repairing shoes. Just above his shoulder, attached to a shelf, is a sign with an index finger pointing to the right: “COMPLAINT DEPARTMENT -- THREE DAYS RIDE”.
“Look here,” France said, “if it’s anything to do with shoes, I’ll be doing it. Shoe repair is a craft. Every day is a challenge. You got to be up for the challenge.”
Looking around the small place, it seems like the first challenge might be finding something in particular among the hundreds of shoes; heavy machinery; and shelves stocked with polishes, leather soles, threads and glues.
It’s not a challenge for France.
“You been here 20 years, you better know where things are,” he said.
France grew up in Trinity, North Carolina.
“I was a poor boy just like anybody else.”
In the 1970s, he wended his way to South Carolina “through friends that I knew.” Eventually, he settled in Sumter, working as a machinist sharpening tools at tool factories.
As a father of two, he decided he wanted to learn a second trade.
“When I got older, I thought it would be something I could fall back on,” France said. “I had two children I had to educate. That was the biggest thing -- that my two daughters got an education. At the time, there was a guy who lived down the street from me: William Cantey. He was an instructor at what was then the Denmark Area Trade School. He taught shoe repair. He told me that if I was gonna go to school, he wanted to be my teacher. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. William was my mentor and best friend.”
France studied shoe repair for two years.
“I worked at night and went to school in the daytime. I learned how to tear down a shoe and put the whole thing back together,” he said.
France gave up tool sharpening and repaired shoes in Sumter, Orangeburg and North. Then, in 2000, he made his way to the Christmas Shoe Shop in Camden.
“William called me one day and said, ‘I got a job for you.’ He and his brother had reopened the Christmas Shoe Shop. I said I didn’t need a job; I was retired,” France said. He talked me into coming up here and working three days a week. About three weeks later, I was working full time. Then I took the place over in 2006.
“If it’s anything to do with shoes, I can do it. Full soles, half soles. Heels is one of the biggest jobs. I fix ’em and polish ’em up before they go out the door. Now hunters, they don’t want polish on their boots. Deer can smell it, and when they do, they’re going the other way.
“Now, you want a fight? Mess with a woman’s shoe. They want their shoes and they want them looking good every day.”
France said the hardest job he’s ever had to do was “take a right shoe and make it a left shoe.
“The lady had had polio and asked me if I could reverse the right shoe. She wasn’t happy having to buy two pairs of shoes all the time. She said she’d carried that shoe all over the place and repair shops had told her it couldn’t be done. I told her it could be done, but it was gonna take some time. It took me two months. When she came to get the shoe, she was thrilled to death,” he remembered.
France leaned over a sander, a machine built to sand down new leather soles to a smooth finish. The sander is one of a long line of old, solid machines -- including buffers, waxers and trimmers -- France uses to ply his trade.
“I can tell you, they don’t build machines like this anymore,” he said.
The same may be said of shoe repair shops.
“It’s a dying craft,” France said. “McBee, Manning, Bethune and Sumter. All those shoe shops are closed.”
And because they are, France stays busy.
He picked up a shoe and swiped some ink onto the side of its new sole.
“They don’t call it dye,” he said. “They call it ink.”
Either way, France’s hands moved swiftly.
“Look here, if you’ve been doing something for 40 years, you gonna be good at it. I don’t have a chance to lay around and die. This shop keeps me moving and going. I like what I’m doing. I’m productive for somebody else. Whatever comes through that door, I’m willing to do it,” France said.
Above that front door, on the outside of the building, a large sign says “CHRISTMAS SHOE SHOP.”
According to Tom Christmas, the long, narrow building was once an open alleyway until a roof was put on it. Christmas’ grandfather owned a furniture store in Camden and used furniture was sold at the much smaller building. The Christmas family also established a shoe repair business there.
“At least, that’s what I was told,” Christmas said.
According to information provided by the Camden Archives and Museum, the brick building was constructed in the late 1800s and at one time served as the Isaac English Barber Shop.
Though Pete’s Shoe Shop is the official name of the place now, France has no plans to take away the Christmas Shoe Shop sign or, just above it, the two brown boots made of metal.
“It’s a landmark,” he said. “History is important, no matter what.”
France also said he has no plans to retire.
“That’s the good Lord’s job.”
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